Samson the hero
The Philistine chiefs gathered to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god. They were celebrating the fact that their enemy, Samson, had been delivered into their hands - he who had killed so many of their people.
In high spirits they called for Samson to be brought in for their entertainment. He was fetched from prison, and forced to perform feats of strength to amuse them. After that he was told to stand between the pillars. Samson said to the boy who was leading him, "Take me to where I can lean on the pillars that support the building."
The temple was crowded with men and women. All the leading Philistines were there. There were something like three thousand people on the roof, watching Samson. Samson called out to Yahweh: "Lord Yahweh, remember me. Give me strength this last time, and let me be avenged at one blow for my two eyes." He put his arms around the two central pillars supporting the building, his right arm around one and his left around the other. He cried out, "Let me die with the Philistines!" And then he leaned forward with all his strength, and the temple fell on the chiefs and on all the people who were in it. He killed more people at his death than he had killed in his life.
His kin came down to get his body, and they buried him in his father's tomb.
These days we have more heroes and heroines rushing about on stage and screen than we know what to do with. Hercules and the Bionic Man. Wonderwoman and Superman. Not to mention dauntless crime-busting motor cars and whole crews of skywalkers.
And while they're O.K. in our fantasy worlds, we're very sceptical about such characters in real life. In fact it's a popular sport to deflate the magical names of recent history: the Hollywood stars, the pop singers, the great generals, the famous politicians, the peerless sportsmen and sportswomen.
But I'm not going to sing the praises of yet another macho male, or offer a scurrilous piece of defamation, proving that Samson was no better than the worst of us. I think Samson is interesting because he shows us several different kinds of heroism.
First there's the simple heroism of physical strength. Samson, the amazing brawn-and-bone man, who gave his name to a thousand imitators in the circuses and sideshows of the world. Samson, the strongman, who fought and killed a lion bare-handed (a young lion, remarks the Bible modestly). Samson the hero who carried off the gates of the city of Gaza (and the doorposts as well, says the Bible, not so modestly). Samson, who allowed himself to be handed over to his enemies, bound with ropes; but hearing the Philistines howl with joy at his capture, snapping his bonds and picking up the jawbone of an ass to slay a thousand men. (A fresh jawbone, explains the Bible, heavier and less brittle than an old one.)
And at last the Samson who, blinded and tormented,
bowed himself with all his might and brought the heathen temple of
Dagon crashing down upon himself and his torturers.
But Samson had more ordinary gifts. He was a person of remarkable psychological and spiritual strength. There are twenty lonely years as a resistance leader to prove it. And look how he recovered from the catastrophe of his betrayal, and bore mutilation and vicious degradation without breaking.
We're all said to be made in the image of God. So Samson faithfully reflects something of his maker. It's hardly surprising that in later ages he was taken to represent in human form something of the power and strength of God himself. Heroic energy. Well, that's a way of dealing with his world that God later gave up for a different method. But the people of mediaeval Europe, taught to find in the stories of the Old Testament sign and symbols of the gentler Christ who was to come, celebrated the heroism of Christ in the heroics of Samson.
They carved Samson on the faces of their cathedrals, and set him in
their stained glass windows. Samson fighting the lion taught them to
remember Christ's conflict with the Devil. Samson breaking the gates
of Gaza became reminder of Christ's resurrection, and the bursting
from the tomb.
We have more literal minds. But there's another side to Samson the hero which is deep and strange, even disturbing. I mean Samson's long agony, his final triumph in the moment of total disaster.
The Samson story has the shape of an age-old tragic myth. It begins with a miraculous child, a man of destiny, who for a time excels in strength and force of will.
But eventually his enemies discover a fatal flaw, the secret of that terrible strength. Samson goes down to the very depths of humiliation and suffering. Yet it's there, in utter defeat, that he finds again the power lost through his own folly, and with a last huge effort he wins a great victory for his nation.
John Milton, the old, blind poet, as helpless as Samson among his enemies in Restoration England, was moved by the story to write his great poem Samson Agonistes. And in our day heavyweight wrestlers reenact the drama of the suffering hero on the television screen.
But the Bible calls Samson a hero of faith; faith, not pain. In his mighty death it sees the promise of an even greater salvation.
© Colin Gibson